June 27, 2016

Let’s get drunk at Barnes & Noble




As we recently reported, Barnes & Noble has officially seen better days. But the bottom’s not dropped out yet. Hot on the heels of a less-than-stellar earnings report, the bookstore chain has announced the latest pivot in their ongoing attempt to be everything to everyone remotely interested in books (or spaces that sell books): There will be booze.

Phil Wahba reports over at Fortune:

The bookstore chain said at an investor conference on Thursday that it would open four concept stores in fiscal 2017 that will feature bars offering wine and beer, along with better food, in cafés twice the size of its usual food spots, its latest effort to rejuvenate its business.

The first store will open in Eastchester, N.Y., about 30 miles north of New York City, in October and have amenities like a fire pit and bocce court. The three other stores will be in the Galleria Edina in Edina, Minn.; the Palladio at Broadstone mall in Folsom, Calif.; and One Loudoun, a mixed-use community in Loudoun County, Va.

As you can imagine, this strategy is intended to bring in more customers and keep them in the store longer; i.e., if you’re sitting down to a full meal (and these stores will offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner) you’ll necessarily have more time to contemplate the reason for the space’s existence (bookselling) and consider availing yourself of their non-food services.

Not exactly a return to core values, but this is keeping in line with B&N’s attempts to serve as an all-purpose commons. A logical extension of their extant cafes, proceeding at the pace that licensing and budgets allow.

But while it’s tempting to view this as B&N’s latest branding noodle thrown against the economic wall to test its stickiness, I would praise this as a worthy (if small-scale and mightily late) attempt to tap into one of the greatest bookselling shortcuts of all time. Namely, that people will buy more books if you get them drunk.

This is why every half-decent attempt at an author event (one of the most paradoxically challenging venues to sell books) must include AT LEAST some wine. This is why you bought that $27 hardcover after that event, despite being the kind of person who saves their money by buying generic shampoo. This is why booksellers can hold their liquor so effectively. Alcohol and the search for literary stimulation are natural allies.

Yes, it’s true, alcohol is a loosener of inhibitions across the board. But for anyone trembling on the cusp of purchase—who sees a snappy cover, who recalls reading a review of that book, who’s heard that book’s heartbreakingly gorgeous—one or two ounces of reasonably-priced alcohol is the difference between a sale and no sale.

Alcohol is the magic bullet of marketing. It turns a consumer into the ideal consumer. The promise that publishers and retailers attempt to imbue into packaging and display is much more accessible after a few drinks, but beyond that, the consequences of intoxicated book buying are much less harmful than other drunk decisions, assuming you don’t drive yourself home.

As Jaime Carey, the chain’s newly minted President of Development & Restaurant Group points out, “It’s not something that is going to go online.” He’s referring to the experience of shopping and eating in-store, but I prefer to think he’s talking about getting hammered.

Sure, drunk online shopping is common. But it’s nowhere near as satisfying as that bleary stumble to the cash register, pile of books in hand, not to mention the bubbly conversation you have with the person ringing you up about how excited you are to read these books. This bookseller may seem like they’re just indulging you, but trust me, they’re overjoyed that you found what you needed. Like, say, this book, or this one, for instance.

Which is why Barnes & Noble badly needs people to start showing up drunk; or, barring that, show up looking to get drunk. But their hands are tied. Any encouragement to get intoxicated likely runs up against hundreds of different legal and corporate barriers, not to mention certain cultural ones, so they can’t take on this branding challenge singlehandedly.

Which is why we, the book lovers of America without ready access to these four test locations, must resolve to head to our local bookstores after we’ve had at least three drinks. (Again, please don’t drive there.) This may mean your local indie, but for most of America, it will mean your local Barnes & Noble. And if my calculations are correct, this will be a win-win for everyone involved.

TGI Friday’s was once a trendy cocktail bar for yuppie singles, before its metastasis into your local strip mall’s best source of heartburn. So too can Barnes & Noble offer as many Americans the vital experience of getting drunk at the bookstore. But the time to act, and drink, is now.

Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.